teacher project

At Bedford Academy, a teacher rethinks English class using law school seminars

This is one part of an occasional series focusing on the individuals who make up the city’s 80,000-member public school teaching force. 

Alesia Matthew can’t stand it when people don’t speak clearly.

Maybe it’s her southern roots, or the 11 years she spent working in the legal field, or the fact that, decades before she realized she wanted to teach, all of her summer jobs in high school and college involved working with children.

Whatever the reason, Matthew said, “When I’m going to say what’s in my mind, I go out of my way to make sure what I say is clear.”

Matthew says her background in law taught her to value clarity in all forms of communication, whether she’s giving instructions, writing a legal brief, or making an oral argument. When she started teaching, she was surprised to find that those skills also helped her engage students and sharpen their thinking. She now sees them as central to her ability to jump into teaching as a second career.

Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, Matthew always had her sights set on law. After earning her law degree from Ohio State University, she moved to Queens to work in the Legal Aid Society’s criminal defense division.

Matthew loved the work, but kept getting antsy. She worked as a contract attorney for major New York law firms, then as a legal recruiter, then in the legal compliance division of an insurance company, but she didn’t feel like she was “making any kind of impact.”

Meanwhile, a school down the road from her apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant caught her eye. In 2002, she got a job teaching legal studies at M.S. 258, a struggling neighborhood school that the city would close six years later. Rather than teaching a separate elective, Matthew said, she went into social studies classes and worked with all of the students in the school.

Matthew had no training in education, so she used with her high schoolers the only approach she knew: the Socratic method her law school professors had used.

That means “calling on them, asking open-ended questions,” she said. “These aren’t yes/no questions, these are more, ‘Why? OK, prove it. How are you going to support that? OK, let me play devil’s advocate.’ My classes have always been in these discussions.”

She continued to use that approach the next year, when her assistant principal, Adofo Muhammad, asked her to teach English. She later followed Muhammad to M.S. 143 and then, after a brief stint at M.S. 571, to Bedford Academy.

Matthew said that argument was the focus of her English classes even before the Common Core learning standards were formally introduced. Based on her experience in law school, she decided that the best way to help students learn to make arguments and support them was by going through the process over and over again.

This January, after reading Plato’s “Apology,” “Crito,” and “Allegory of the Cave” with her AP Language and Composition class, she asked them to respond to the question, Do societies exercise mind control over their citizens?

By that point in the year, Matthew said, her students were familiar with the process: Develop a claim, use direct textual evidence to prove the claim, and then analyze and discuss how that evidence proves the claim. Then ask, based on that argument, what is a possible counter-claim?

She said that once students got the hang of the process, they started coming up with counterclaims that others might not see. “That’s where the creativity comes in,” she said.

Now, as the school’s lead English teacher, Matthew is focused on coming up with ways to help students to think for themselves. Given her roundabout path into teaching, its a role she’s now comfortable with, she said, recalling a recent run-in with an old student who said she was the teacher who had “made her think the most.”

“That solidified it for me—this is what you’re supposed to do,” Matthew said. “Most students I have had say to me, you made me think. And you were easy to understand.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”